Trigger warning: this story contains references to some heavy shit. I’m not going to say exactly what because I don’t want to ruin it, but you get the idea. There is also time hopping, and neither the characters nor the story are based on personal experiences.
The scream of the crowd was so coarse it almost sounded like waves crashing in to rocks.
P’s knee-high boot heels clacked and echoed through the empty hallway. Everyone was watching the show, and she was on her way out. Her once soft blonde locks were pulled back in to a messy bun. Her chiffon maxi was fraying at the bottom and torn at the knee. She hiked it up and slung the oversized denim jacket she stole over her shoulder. One of her three lighters fell from the pocket to the tiles below. She didn’t stop to collect it.
The tour had been grand, to say the least; twenty five shows in thirty days.
The bus stank of stale cigarettes, spilled bourbon and sweat. It was dirty and it was home.
P usually slept on the top bunk, far right. Reuben was on the bottom. He was always on the bottom.
He wasn’t married, which was a bonus. He was one of the few she knew who let the life consume him without pretending to be a human outside of it. The only person he was hurting in the process was himself. He had a bad habit involving injectables and could fall asleep anywhere, guitar laid gently in his lap.
Smith was the daddy. He would carry the boys both figuratively and literally from time to time. He always had time to talk because he was the singer. Making noise with his mouth was his favourite pass time, and he especially loved the sound of it. He tried to be sober once and it lasted three weeks. In P’s mind, that was an excellent effort. His bunk was always immaculate.
Mick, the bassist with the permanent chip on his shoulder, was the polar opposite. Purposefully destructive, his anger was palpable. Everyone but Smith wanted him to leave. Even he wanted to leave. Coke doesn’t pay for itself, however, and he wasn’t going to get girls outside of his rock star persona. Matted brown hair hanging in his face, deep set green eyes and a forever furrowed brow; P thought he would almost be attractive if only he’d lighten up. Smith and Mick had known each other since they were four years old. Smith was the kind of man who made family out of anyone. Mick knew he wasn’t going anywhere without destroying the only long term relationship he had.
Shane was the happy-go-lucky drummer with a permanent grin and glint in his eye. He was just happy, man. He knew how good he had it. His sandy blonde hair sat in a Beatles’ style mop. Often compared to a young Ringo, there was a constant stream of giggling fans in his presence. The girl he’d married at twenty one only ever made an appearance when they approached places she found interesting. She flew to Sydney last week for a two day shopping and fighting spree. The rest of the group avoided the bus like the plague in that time. The usual complaint was the fact that Shane refused to book them a hotel. P suspected she knew exactly what ghosts were haunting that bed.
Lastly there was Matthew; Matthew the Manager. Matt was kind and intuitive, older and a gentleman. He was P’s favourite person. He was British. His thick Yorkshire accent could calm anyone. His hair was long and grey, often in a neat pony tail. His beard was trimmed, beer belly was prominent and hairline was receding, though no one would ever say that out loud. His shirts were always pressed to perfection.
Matthew had been big in the 70s. He was part of a folk trio who had taken off in the hippie community. Their songs about love and unity still struck a chord today with many wandering music fans, and he often had groupies of his own after each show. He’d always take time for a chat and an autograph. He never lost patience with anyone. It was a gift.
The other boys were less inclined to be so accommodating, though that depended on how short the skirt was.
P shivered as she used her modest body weight to press open the emergency exit door. The air was bitter cold. Their tour was ending in Melbourne, and at 11pm this August night the atmosphere was unkind. A speck of rain tapped her nose, and she pushed her glasses further up the bridge. She wouldn’t normally wear them at night, but she wasn’t in the mood for answering questions and her eyes always betrayed her.
Passing a pack of huddling fans in fur coats and Doc Martens she made her way towards the main road. She felt the looming tour bus presence behind her, but daren’t chance a glance at it. The events from the night before still brought a heap of bile to her throat.
She shook her head firmly to remove the thought and pulled the denim jacket tighter around her shoulders.
A taxi with their light off wizzed past her. Her phone screen was too damaged to order an Uber. She could barely receive a phone call.
On the corner she waited, for a touch too long. The cold was creeping its way in to her bones. The shallow breath escaping her mouth appeared in small clouds before her.
The girl had been young; too young, P had known from first glance. Buried beneath the layer of beautifully applied mac products was a child, no more than fifteen. Her gold halter neck hung loose at her undeveloped chest, but she supposed the boys were more likely looking at the shapely thighs on full display under her barely-existent mini. P had watched her carefully from her perch on Reuben’s lap. She had won her way in with her armful of flowers and gram of cocaine poking out of the wrapping. Where the fuck did she get that? was all P thought at the time. P was very used to sharing the group with other women, but she hadn’t expected this girl to hang around. The young ones get a bit giggly and see themselves to the door when the hard stuff comes out. Not this one though. She knew what she was doing, and it was equal parts mesmerising and terrifying.
P had shook her head as her brown leather boots found the floor. She lifted herself up and walked slowly around the circle that formed at the coffee table. The girl glanced up at P, and with a little smug smirk she made herself an enemy.
P marched from the room and found her way to the bathroom. A moment’s reflection in the mirror had her questioning her own motives. Do I want rid of her for her wellbeing, or because I think she’s a threat? She bit her lip. P was older when she hit the music scene, early 20s, passion before sense. She’d always been prone to hero worship in the place of love, but times were changing. These boys were now men in their 30s. She’d began following their tour three years earlier until eventually she’d become part of it. Every June she waited for the call, and this year it was Matthew instead of Reuben.
“’e needs you, Miss Thing,” he’d affectionately referred to her. It started the day they met. Her vintage Harrington had caught his eye and he nodded with fatherly approval and pride. You’ve really got it girl. You’ve got that thing they all want. Mystery.
Mystery is loneliness, thought P.
Apparently one bad trip too far, Reuben was on his final warning. Maybe his muse could fix the problems six months in the studio had festered. Maybe not.
The tour started wonderfully. Family nights, as P liked call them. They’d sit around and wax poetic about dreams and ideas, their solutions for all misery and corruption. Matthew would let out his billowing laughs and shake his head affectionately at the dreamy souls that surrounded him.
“You young ones, just you wait,” he’d say. “I once thought I could change the world too.”
P and Reuben were as close to love as two broken people can be. She sought therapy in his affections and he seemed to find his own in illegal substances. He needed her physically, but mentally he was never quite there. In a way P never thought of herself as the type who would enjoy someone actually loving her, so this was easier; a story, with highs and lows and adventure and nothing else. It would end, as everything did, and she would go back to… what? Nothing. Sometimes nothing is better than the alternative.
Oh how her mind had changed. P used to dream of taming a wild musician, someone to share her passions, to dance and sing and dream with. Now she knew better. Artists can’t love. They’re too busy giving their all to their creativity. There’s nothing left but scraps.
A taxi pulled around the corner, yellow top light beaming. P raised her hand and it slowed before her. She wasn’t really sure where she was going, but it would be far away from here.
“Can you see with those glasses?” remarked the driver. He had a thick accent, it sounded Eastern European. P couldn’t manage a reply. Her gaze didn’t shift from the passing street lights.
A flash of big brown eyes returned to her mind, large and bewildered, pleading. P let out a heavy breath like she was trying to expel the memory. This time it wasn’t working. Her eyes welled painful but blinking away the tears just caused them to spill down her cheeks. Now she wanted to vomit.
That’s not my world, she told herself over and over. It’s not me. It’s not my fault.
The taxi stopped at a red light and P pushed open the door just in time for the puke to hit the pavement below.
“Hey!” growled the driver. “You can get out if you are sick. I will have no mess in my car. You will pay for it.”
P wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and slowly pulled the door closed with the other. “No,” she gasped, “I’m sorry, I’m okay now.”
He narrowed his eyes in the rear view mirror, but continued towards the city no less.
P pulled at some material in her hold-all and out came a t-shirt of Reubens. It was black, the band’s logo emblazoned on the back. She wiped her mouth and hand on it before throwing it on to the seat beside her.
When P returned to the room that night, the bouncers had already moved away. The music from inside was thumping. Smith had on Appetite for Destruction, his favourite post gig blow out album. Matthew pulled the door open just as she had reached for the handle. His face was paler than usual, and he avoided her gaze.
“I don’t think you should stay around, Miss Thing. Those boys don’t know what’s good for ‘em.” He bowed his head and gently moved past her, his hand grazing her shoulder as he went. P watched him go. The drugs are out, she guessed, before turning back to the door and letting herself in.
She wasn’t expecting the half-naked teenager to be even more naked than before, nor was she expecting Smith and Mick to be watching hungrily from the couch as she danced to Rocket Queen on the coffee table.
Shane had two slightly older but still young ladies perched on his knees at the far end of the room, joint hanging out of his mouth and eyes closed as he head banged to the beat.
Reuben was holding a pipe in one hand and reaching to the young one with the other.
She hopped off the table and bent over before him as he placed the pipe between her lips. The wind was knocked from P’s lungs.
“Reuben!” she snapped from across the room, but he wasn’t listening. A cloud of smoke shielded his face from her. When it dissolved she saw the wide smile once reserved for her. Every cell in her body wanted to rip him limb from limb, but something was holding her back. No, it was someone.
Mick had his arm wrapped tightly around her waist, holding her firmly in place. He had a good five inches on her, and was the only one in the group to frequent a gym. She saw his tattooed bicep flex as he pushed her backwards against the door, blocking her view.
“Don’t,” was all he said in his deep, intimidating way. P didn’t.
What felt like an eternity passed and Mick still hadn’t let her go. P found her words. “What are you doing?”
“What I was told to do. Reuben is busy. Why don’t we leave him to it?” It wasn’t a question, and he was standing so close she could barely catch a breath.
“What do you want?” came out as a whisper, which frustrated the shit out of her. She was strong; she wouldn’t be intimidated by this idiot. She tried to stand up taller, so his right hand closed around her arm.
“It’s almost the last night on tour, what do you think I want?”
“Fuck off Mick,” she snarled. “How dare you?”
“You think Reuben gives a shit?” he retorted with venom. He moved just far enough to the side for her to catch a glimpse of the girl now straddling the only man she’d ever let herself get close to. Her stomach dropped completely. Her throat went dry. Her words were gone again.
Mick didn’t speak this time either, he just yanked her forwards painfully, throwing open the door and tossing her outside of it in one fluid motion. She hit the floor with a thud and felt something sharp pierce her knee. He stepped out and closed the door behind him.
P looked down at a small pool of blood, a piece of glass. She pulled it out quickly and covered the wound with her other hand, her back to Mick the whole time. She had never liked him, but now? Now she hated him.
“He’ll fuck anyone, and I’ve heard the same about you. I know what the fuck you do when you’re not with us. I know who you hang out with. You’ve got a reputation to uphold Miss Thing,” At that he pulled her up by the back of her shearling jacket. P spun and held the piece of glass up to his throat.
“You fucking touch me and I swear to God I’ll slice your neck and your wrists. You’re a shit bass player anyway and the boys would be a lot better off without you.”
Mick stepped back with his hands up, utter fury across his face. P lunged for the door.
It slammed hard against the wall when she flung it open. She saw the back of two heads, one blonde and one brunette, both messy and unkempt. Between them she saw wide, glazed over eyes and lips parted in an ‘oh’. The wild eyes fixed on hers and filled with tears, the girl was crushed beneath the weight of them both, but she didn’t make a sound. Reuben flicked his long dark hair over his shoulder and let out a howl of laughter, Smith took the girl’s chin in his hand and her eyes flicked to him. That was all P saw.
Her head was ripped backwards as Mick grabbed her by the hair. He pulled her so hard that she hit the floor again, this time with her head catching a badly placed amp on the way down. He entered the room and clicked the lock behind him.
“Who invited that cunt anyway?” he barked, but that’s all she heard. Welcome to the Jungle was playing now. Her vision went blurry, and then it went completely.
When P awoke she was still in the hallway. Her head was in someone’s lap, and her hair was being stroked. When the haze subsided, she saw the young girl gazing down at her. Her cheeks were streaked with mascara and dry tears, but when P’s eyes flickered open she had smiled.
“I’m Isa,” she whispered.
P couldn’t move, her head was still pounding, so she stayed in Isa’s lap. “I’m P,” she replied eventually.
“Oh, I know who you are,” the girl grinned back. “You’re my hero.”
What a bizarre thing to say, thought P. But the pit of her stomach was still churning, and what she had witnessed came flooding back to mind.
“Are you okay?” she asked meagrely, knowing what stupid question it was.
“I’m better than you,” Isa giggled. Her youthful jubilance seemed betrayed by the state of her hair and makeup. P had no idea what to make of her.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” P said, slowly forcing herself up in to a seated position. The aching inside her skull was almost intolerable, so she lowered her head in to her hand to block the light. They were alone, and it was silent.
“Why would you do that?” Isa asked quietly. “I’ve been having fun.” Fuck, thought P. That’s not what it looked like. She turned one squinty eye towards the girl, who in turn raised her eyebrows at her. “I’m here because I want to be, and they wanted me to be, and you are lucky I am.” That petulant smugness had returned. P lost a few sympathy points.
“Fine,” she muttered. “Help me up then.”
The girls struggled to their feet. P looked down at her bloody knee and sighed. It looked worse than it felt. “Are you going home now?”
“Smith said I could stay the night, actually. He said there’s a free bed on the bus and my mum thinks I’m at a sleepover anyway.” She was proud of herself.
P knew the free bed was hers.
Both girls stood in silence for a moment. Isa shuffled awkwardly.
“Well, I think they’re waiting for me in the bus so… I don’t know if you’re invited.”
P wanted to spit. Her whole world was being torn apart by a Lolita. “Fuck off then,” she barked.
Isa sighed heavily. “I don’t want you to hate me.” P turned to look at her fully.
“You have no idea what you are getting yourself in to. I just hope for your sake they treat you better than they have me,” and with that she bolted down the hallway, never looking back.
Sitting outside the emergency exit door was Matthew. He had on two knitted jumpers and a parka, and was holding a cigar. He jumped to his feet the moment P appeared, and within seconds she found herself in one of the tightest, warmest hugs of her life. The tears weren’t voluntary but they came anyway, like a flood gate giving way after a long, wet winter.
Several minutes later, when the weeping subsidised to sniffs, Matthew placed his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back to see her face.
“P you’re one in a million darlin’. I really can’t ‘elp this. It’s the life they want to live and I’ve got to let them live it. If they aren’t ‘appy, we don’t get a record and then we’re all finished.” He brushed a limp blonde strand behind her ear and lifted her chin, so she would meet his eyes.
“Matt you’ve got no idea. She’s a child and they’re disgusting.” He looked hard at her for a moment.
“No one forced her to be ‘ere.”
Those were not the words P was expecting. Her world began spinning. They’re all as bad as each other.
Matthew begged P to stay for the last night on tour. “We’re in’t middle of nowhere,” he’d pointed out. Out of a sick sense of desperation for that not to be the end of her story, she agreed. One more day, she told herself; one more night.
When P returned to the bus at 4am, all was dark and silent. Isa was not in her bunk, nor anyone else’s.
The sun rose a few hours after, and having not slept a wink, so did she.
She ambled in the brisk morning air to what looked like a tradesman’s deli and bought herself a black coffee that tasted like tar. She just needed a purpose at that moment, and a morning coffee seemed appropriate.
After staring in to nothingness and smoking three cigarettes, P wandered back. She passed Shane’s ladies of the evening on her way in to the car park. Their hushed whispers rung heavy with excitement. Smith was standing by the door of the bus, cigarette in hand.
“Good morning beautiful,” he purred. P narrowed her eyes at him. Are we really just going to behave like normal? He furrowed his brow at her.
“Get out of the wrong side of the bunk this morning?”
P made a decision in that moment. She reminded herself why she was still there, she needed to get to civilisation, she didn’t want her adventure to fall to pieces, and from then on it was quite easy for her to pretend like the night before never happened. In fact, it was almost as if it didn’t.
Mick ignored her like always, and Reuben had given her cheek an affectionate stroke as he passed her on the way to the bathroom. They dozed through the four hour drive, interests only peeking when the Melbourne skyline came in to view.
“Honey, I’m home!” cooed Smith as he gazed out the window. Reuben wrapped his arm around P and kissed her gently on the top of her head. She tingled from the spot his lips touched to the tips of her toes. “It’s almost the end,” he sighed in her ear. She leaned back to look him in the eyes. He grinned that same old grin at her and her heart melted just a little less than usual.
The show was due to start at ten but the supporting act was running over. It gave the boys time for one more beer. As she followed them on their purposeful march to the stage she felt her heart break in to a million tiny pieces that she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to put back together again.
One by one they pulled back the curtain. The excited screams from the crowd grew louder each time. Reuben was the last to enter, and this time, he didn’t look back.
Neither would P.